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Flint Residents Face More Trauma With Dirty Flint River As Water Source

Officials in Flint, Michigan switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the notoriously polluted Flint River. The change has wracked residents with more trauma on top of what they were already experiencing as a result of lead poisoning in their water system. But one former Flint resident remembers how the Flint River was widely regarded as “dirty” during her childhood.

Back in August, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette told the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan that the existing method of “delivery,” where “Flint residents must find a way to retrieve their own drinking water, and can use water filters that may or may not be installed and maintained correctly” was “good enough.”

The state of Michigan fought against Concerned Pastors For Social Action and other groups to prevent the district court from forcing them to deliver bottled water to residents. They cited the
“cost of monthly delivery of bottled water to 100 percent of the Flint households” to justify their claim that a court order to provide water to residents was “unreasonable and overbroad.”

Judge David M. Lawson found this argument was based on a “demonstrably false premise.”

In his scathing ruling, Judge Lawson wrote:

The State defendants argue that the scope of the Court’s door-to-door delivery has no known precedent. Perhaps, but there also is no precedent for the systemic infrastructure damage to a water delivery system caused by a public official’s decision to switch to a water source that is corrosive and the failure to “install and operate optimal corrosion control treatment.

While state negligence is the primary focus in the aftermath of the water crisis, and rightfully so, the contamination of the 78-mile-long Flint river presents a similarly pressing issue.

Moira Zell Wilson, a 77 year-old former resident of Flint, lived on Fenton Road for the first 15 years of her life until she was 19 years old and a graduate of Flint Junior College. Wilson said as a child the general feeling about the Flint River was that “it was dirty. You don’t fish in it or eat fish from it. Although the desperately poor were known to fish for bullheads in it, you don’t play near it. You don’t boat, swim, wade, etc. in it.”

“We were a post-World War II industrial city,” Wilson said. “It was assumed that the river was contaminated by the industry near it.” Wilson recalled meeting a poor woman in Genesee County Hospital, who attempted to commit suicide in the Flint River in 1960 or 1961. She called the river greasy and warned her not to jump in it.

“All older communities had plumbing with lead, a given, Flint is no exception. My father and his second family lived just off North Saginaw Street in a very old home which was sure to have early regulation pipes,” Wilson shared.

“Both my husband and I were appalled to hear of the return to Flint River water as a source, primarily because of the common consensus in our youth that the river was not a good candidate for a water source for drinking. We were saddened by the news that followed.”

The last Wilson knew, a third of residents and more moved out of Flint, and they’re struggling to survive since most major employers have left. “The city is a shadow of its former self,” Wilson lamented. According to Wilson, an apprenticeship at General Motors “was considered a ticket to a good life and steady employment and this simply is no more. We grew up in its heyday.”

Wilson left Flint over fifty years ago but pays attention to the news. Returning to the Flint River as a source for water is a “poor, if not ridiculous choice.”

Andrew R. Highsmith, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis,” also has raised concerns about the return to Flint River as a water source.

Highsmith told Michigan public radio station WDET it would be a mistake to conclude the crisis in Flint is “simply the result of government mismanagement.” The current situation in Flint is the product of much larger structural problems.

“Over the past three quarters of a century, waves of deindustrialization, depopulation, and disinvestment have obliterated Flint’s tax base and made it extremely difficult and impossible almost to repair and update the city’s crumbling infrastructure,” Highsmith asserted. He added the hemorrhaging of jobs has created the foundation for the state takeover and “for the city’s broader economic crisis.”

The impact of Flint’s current water crisis has left many families dealing with not only financial burdens but also staggering healthcare emergencies.

The effects of poisoned water for Melissa Mays, founder of the advocacy group Water You Fighting For, are horrifying. According to Mays, her family developed painful rashes after the city made the switch, and their hair felll out. Her children complained of muscle and bone pain, and now Mays’ own DNA is so damaged as a result of consuming Flint River water that her antibodies have attacked her liver, joints, and brain.

Mays has seizures, developed cirrhosis, her liver has started to fail, and she now has osteoarthritis. “I’m 37, and I hurt every time I move.”

The water crisis in Flint is multifaceted, but above all else, it is not a blip in the system. There are other cities around the United States suffering from contaminated water sources, and according to a report by The Nation, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention “is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies.”

Keeping our eyes on Flint means that we also keep in mind that there are countless other communities struggling with similar public health emergencies that demand our attention.

Photo by Defence Images on Flickr
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Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at Roqchams.com.